All of the weather apps, no matter how much I wished it otherwise, showed rain and clouds for my four day weekend in Reykjavik so I resigned myself that I probably wasn’t going to see the Northern Lights in Iceland on this trip. The Aurora forecast for Iceland was showing the activity in the 2-3 range (moderate) on a 9 point scale but with cloud cover that didn’t matter. With that, I figured I would play it by ear and see what happens.
Friday: Tours Canceled
Saturday: Tours are going, but I’m exhausted from my day of adventure on the Golden Circle and have a dinner reservation pre-booked
Sunday: Tours Canceled
Monday: Go Time!
Having talked with folks about Saturday, those on the big bus didn’t see the lights, while those on the Superjeep did. I decided that with a weekend of rain and clouds as well as an activity forecast of 2 on a 9 point scale, I needed all the help I could so chose to spend the extra to go Superjeep (about $160 per person).
Dressing for the Northern Lights
It was my last night in Reykjavik and I had to leave for the airport at 5:30 a.m. so I was packing up but I was also trying to figure out the best layering combination for my Northern Lights tour. With the weather forecast, I had resigned myself that I wasn’t going to see the Northern Lights and yet, here I was dressing for an Eagles (football) game in December (layers, layers and more layers without the warmth of the tailgating alcohol). As it was my last night, if we didn’t see the lights, I wouldn’t be able to try again tomorrow (most vendors will allow you two tries for one price so best to book on your first night if you can) so this was my gamble – my only shot.
Once sorted into what I thought appropriate for temperatures of 3-4c (37F-39F) not too bad, but outside of the city in the pitch black with the winds it would be pretty frigid. My wardrobe consisted of four layers of tops, two layers of pants, two pair of socks, warm/lined boots, wind resistant coat with hood, hat, scarf, gloves and a new pair of Icelandic mittens to go on top. I was also bringing a bag with snacks, water and my cashmere scarf that could serve as a blanket or additional scarf. I was ready or so I thought……
How To Photograph the Northern Lights
It was easy to get the layers of clothes to keep warm together, what wasn’t was the fact that my camera would need to be on manual settings. So here I was twenty minutes before the tour pickup at 8 p.m. googling “how to photograph the northern lights” hoping to get a setting or two. I read the pages, gleaned some info about the open shutter time needed, discarded the “must have tripod” and realized that I might be taking photos of the Northern Lights with only my mind and memory if I couldn’t get the technology to work. See this was how confident that I wasn’t seeing the lights on this trip that I did no advanced research.
The Northern Lights SuperJeep Safari
There were six superjeeps in the caravan hunt for the Northern Lights, it felt a bit like being on safari, someone tracks the lights and we all give chase. The superjeeps hold 7 passengers but we had a few no shows so our private tour was just for three with our guide, Halle.
Our first stop was a hill outside of Reykjavik which thankfully I didn’t see the height of or the dirt/rock road. The vehicle climbed the hill as we bounced up and down (off-roading in the dark) to the parking lot to meet the rest of the group. With the lights of the city down below, we did manage to see a slight white light moving in the sky. This was a good sign to start the night. The groups returned to their jeeps and the chase was on…..
The walkie talkies were all set so we could hear the direction of the leader for the night as he explained where we were going and how unpredictable nature was but he had hope we would be successful given the first sighting.
Nature Calls but not the Lights
So, of course, despite all my precautions (no water before tour and multiple bathroom stops before pickup), after the off-roading, I asked a silly question “is there a bathroom stop tonight” (it was a 4-5 hour tour). As expected in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, away from town, the answer was no, but Halle could stop and I could be one with nature whenever I was ready. Argh! My dumb bladder! I saw a gas station (which was closed) and then nothing else (I kept praying a porta potty would magically appear somehow so I didn’t need to expose my southern assets to the Icelandic cold, in the fields, on the side of the road). Alas, as if a mirage in a desert, Halle said there was a roadside hotel a bit off course but he would stop (we were all happy to use the facilities). The small romantic boutique hotel was one that woke guests up in the middle of the night when the Northern Lights were active – so THANK YOU to Hotel Glymur for your hospitality!!
As we were leaving the parking lot we saw the white lights in the sky. It wasn’t much action but enough to make us happy up in the sky with a million stars. Frankly, if I only got to stare at the stars all night I would be happy.
But I Do Yoga!
After our bathroom stop, we met the group to look up in the sky. What I didn’t know but was learning quickly is that you can’t see the green or reds of the Northern Lights (your camera on a long exposure can but the naked eye can’t) so we would look up and see the white lights moving across the sky – a bit stronger movement than a shooting star. It was so dark that I couldn’t see anyone in front of me and there were close to forty people in front of me! The guides tried to help me set my camera but it was of no use but they also said “without a tripod, I probably couldn’t get a good shot as I need to stay still for at least 20 seconds for the long exposure”, I laughed and said “I do yoga, if I can hold a pose, I think I can hold my camera still”. So I asked the other passenger what he set his camera on and tried to mirror those settings the best I could. Here’s what I got – it’s noisy but given my camera ignorance and lack of tripod, I’m pretty happy there’s green. Again, just watching the stars and sky were pretty amazing.
The group leader was taking photos of everyone with the lights behind but I missed my chance so I went back to the jeep to warm up and watch from inside. Others were partaking in the group hot chocolate and vodka – a nice touch of warmth!
The Unexpected Dance in the Fields
We had a long time in the field and it was late so the entire group was heading back. Halle forgot the step so we had to turn back to retrieve it which put us again far behind the group. Just like the bathroom sighting, our jeep saw activity in the sky and Halle radioed the leader. The group pulled over on the side of the road in another field and we regrouped there to wait and see what we think we saw.
WOW! A beam of light danced in the sky and then as if it were tearing the sky in half it cut a path across as if to say “let the show begin”.
In the background, I heard loud cheering (we were near the big bus lookout point and they were there for a few hours waiting) and I was pretty impressed as well. This time, I managed to find the group leader for that photo after I stayed still a few times with my camera to capture the dance in the sky. It was pretty cool to experience – while I thought I would see green, the white was impressive, the camera results were pretty cool too. The pictures that my mind took were just as memorable -putting the camera down to take in the experience is just as important.
Arriving back at the hotel near 2 a.m., I was spent and and also so excited having seen the Northern Lights that I barely napped before my alarm went off at 4:30 a.m.to get ready to go the airport for my London flight. Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland, spending the extra for the private tour was well worth the lack of sleep, the fact that we had these crazy detours along the way that helped us find the lights, well, that’s just a “only happens to Sue” thing.